Transnational Affecting International Relations Criminology Essay

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Transnational issues have been affecting international relations since the 1970s, acknowledged intellectually but not practically by the national security structures of states in the late 1990s. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the ensuing 'Global War on Terror' which, along with terrorism, has forced the international community to confront problems such as irregular people movements, the drug trade, networks of criminal facilitators and corruption, have brought transnational issues to the forefront of national security considerations. Transnational threats are here to stay as issues of practical national security importance, not the least for having changed permanently the logic of strategic competition and alignment among states. And, they are certainly permanently established as enduring features of Asia's international relations. This essay will initially define the meaning of transnational crime and then it will look at three different crimes namely Drug Trafficking, Money Laundering and Human Trafficking and Smuggling. It will study the social, economical, political and security affects towards the Southeast Asian region. It will then be followed by what is being done to tackle these issues, by the individual nations as well as through regional cooperation.

Defining Transnational Crime

Conceptually, many explanations of transnational crime are derived from organised crime theory. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime defined two key concepts used to address cross-border crime; organised crime and transnational crime. The convention described an organised criminal group as a structured group of three or more persons who commits one or more crimes/offences in order to obtain directly/indirectly a financial or other material benefit (United Nations, 2000).

Figure : United Nations, 2000 article 3.1

Figure 1 describes the four elements of illegal offenses that should be forbidden by countries around the world. These definitions provide a framework to develop an understanding for all the participants of 125 countries that has ratified the Convention.

Drug Trafficking

In considering drug trafficking, it is clear that opium has been a product of world trade for more than 1,000 years. There is also a modern domestic counterpart to such trade in nations that consume illegal drugs (Martin & Romano, 1992). These illicit drugs have been trafficked from "producer" to "consumer countries", usually involving a number of criminal groups from countries along the trafficking chain. Although the distinction between producer and consumer countries has blurred over the past few decades, there is no question that drug trafficking has gained importance over the past three decades (Chawla & Pietschmann, 2005).

Several Southeast Asian countries are major producers of narcotics and/or serve as transit for illicit drugs exported to North America, Europe and other parts of Asia. The Golden Triangle, which incorporates Northern Thailand, Eastern Myanmar and Western Laos, is one of the leading producing regions of narcotics in the world. Myanmar and Laos are respectively the first and third largest cultivators of opium poppies, which are later transformed into heroin. As a result, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world's opium is cultivated in Southeast Asia. In addition to the heroin trade, the manufacturing of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), commonly known as "shabu" or "ice" in Southeast Asia, has dramatically increased in the Golden Triangle since the early 1990s and specifically in Myanmar where relatively inexpensive forms of the drug are being produced in massive quantities.

Narcotics produced in the Golden Triangle used to be primarily exported to non-Asian countries. This has changed since the late 1980s due to a dramatic increase in drugs consumption in East Asia. The consumption of ATS, which are smuggled from Northeast Myanmar and to a lesser extent Laos and Cambodia, has become the prime drug problem in the region, larger than opium or heroin addiction. This problem has reached epidemic proportions in Thailand, where the average age of users continues to decline rapidly. Thailand regards the drug activities of these dealers as an immediate threat to its society and national security. Yet, the Thai authorities are poorly equipped to deal with the narcotics problem and their activities are severely restrained by the fact that they have no influence on the production of ATS in the Shan State of Myanmar. The problem in Southeast Asia is not confined, however, to Thailand. ATS tablets are channeled to the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in ever-increasing amounts. The consumption of narcotics in Southeast Asia, especially amphetamines, is unlikely to decline in the future.

Money Laundering

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), money laundering is the method by which criminals disguise the illegal origins of their wealth and protect their asset bases, so as to avoid the suspicion of law enforcement agencies and prevent leaving a trail of incriminating evidence. According to The Vienna Convention and the Palermo Convention provisions on money laundering, the crime may encompass three distinct acts:

"(i) the conversion or transfer, knowing that such property is the proceeds of crime, (ii) the concealment or disguise of the true nature, source, location, disposition, movement or ownership of or rights with respect to property, knowing that such property is the proceeds of a crime, and (iii) the acquisition, possession or use of property, knowing, at the time of the receipt, that such property is the proceeds of crime".

Put simply, it is the process by which 'dirty money' is legitimised. The proliferation of money laundering has been facilitated by the globalisation of the world economy, where transferring funds quickly and across international borders has become such a common occurrence. Figure 2 outlines the three-step process that the UNODC has outlined in a typical money laundering process.


Figure 2: Typical Money Laundering Cycle

There is also evidence that money laundering is closely linked to the financing of terrorism. Similar methods are used for both money laundering and the financing of terrorism, and it is not unreasonable to assume that the financing of terrorism is usually the end result of a successful money laundering cycle. According to the IMF, in both cases, the actor involved makes an illegitimate use of the financial sector.

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Figure 3: Traditional Terrorism Financing Model

Money laundering is an especially relevant threat in the Southeast Asian region, because money launderers tend to target new economies with a developing financial centre, or countries with weak or non-existent money laundering legislation. Many developing countries are desperate to attract foreign capital and may choose to overlook the origins of the investment.

Human Trafficking / Human Smuggling

The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime contains two protocols that will be particularly useful in defining the concepts of human trafficking and human smuggling. Article 3 of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children states that trafficking in persons is the activity that consists in the "recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of any persons, by means of the threat or the use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power, or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation".

Meanwhile, Article 3 of the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Air and Sea defines human smuggling as the "procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a state party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident". Subparagraph (b) of the same article defines illegal entry as "crossing borders without complying with the necessary requirements for legal entry into the receiving State" (Di Nichola, 2005).

The distinction between human trafficking and human smuggling is often blurred. However, based on these definitions, we can deduce that human trafficking involves an element of coercion and duress and does not necessarily involve movement across transnational borders. Human smuggling, on the other hand, makes no mention of coercion, acknowledging that victims of human smuggling may well be implicit in the crime. However, the distinguishing factor is that human smuggling involves crossing into another state.

In the past decade, human trafficking and human smuggling have become issues of growing concern in Southeast Asia.The problem affects various countries in the region, dividing countries into 'sending', 'transit' or 'receiving' countries. It is estimated that nearly one-third of the global trafficking trade, or about 200 to 225,000 women and children are trafficked annually from Southeast Asia. However, most of this trafficking occurs within the Southeast Asian region. Also, approximately 60 per cent of women and children trafficked into the United States are believed to be of Southeast Asian origin, making the region the most important source region for victims of trafficking (Derks, 2000).

A burgeoning sex industry in many countries in the region fuels the demand for women and children trafficked into prostitution. In Thailand, for example, the large numbers of Western tourists to the country coupled with economic disparities between urban and rural areas have contributed to an active and lucrative sex industry. While women and girls from rural areas are traditionally recruited as prostitutes, this pattern has been replaced by the trafficking of women and children from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Yunnan Province.

Effects towards the region

Transnational organised crime can present a major challenge even where the state is strong, but when the rule of law is already weakened, it can pose a genuine threat to stability (UNODC, 2010).

Drug trafficking, for example, can have a huge destabilising effect on the region. The UNODC in their World Drug Report 2009 estimates that China, Myanmar and the Philippines account for most of the global production of methamphetamines. The Philippines remains a significant source of high potency crystallised methamphetamines, known as 'shabu'. These illegal subtsances as then trafficked into other countries in the region. Most notably, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam have reported increasing incidents of drug users.

Wesley states that "due to the high profits from drug trafficking, the ease of operation and the ever-expanding demand for drugs, the production and trade of synthetic drugs has the greatest potential for expansion in Southeast Asia". Also, drug production and trafficking can pose further threats to regions and states that are already unstable. For example, the principal drug producing region in Myanmar are the Shan States, which are heavily controlled by insurgent groups such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), identified by US and Thai sources as a major producer of methamphetamines. The UNODC estimates that many of insurgent groups turn to taxing of drug production as a major source of revenue. Wesley states that the sales of 'yabba' pills (the tableted form of methamphetamines) in Thailand are currently used to fund the insurgency in the south of the country. Reducing the potential for violence in South-East Asia will require addressing the transnational heroin trade, ATS production and regional trafficking, as well as all the other illicit activities that fuel armed groups in the region (UNODC, 2010).

The biggest threat to society from the production and trafficking of drugs comes from its effects on users. Drugs such as methamphetamines, cocaine and heroine are, by their very nature, addictive and neurologically damaging, which can have a retarding effect on economic growth, particularly given the use of these drugs by young, professional classes as recreational drugs (Wesley, 2008). As of yet, there has been no effective rehabilitation programs from methamphetamines. 'Shabu' addicts remain the biggest group of drug users in Brunei Darussalam, and the drug is gaining increasing popularity in many other Southeast Asian countries due to it's low price and ease of procurement.

Money laundering is a particularly unique form of organised crime, as it is not simply a crime in its own right but also supports and facilitates other crimes. It has gone largely unnoticed, as white-collar crimes are generally more difficult to detect. According to Wesley, these crime types are crucial enablers of more damaging crime types and security threats, and have made parts of the region natural 'hubs' for criminal and terrorist organisations (Wesley, 2008). At the same time, there is evidence that money laundering undermines the stability and integrity of local financial systems. Money laundering can have severe macroeconomic consequences on a country. It can cause unpredictable changes in money demand, pose risks to the soundness of financial institutions and financial systems, contaminate legal financial transactions, and increase the volatility of international capital flows and exchange rates due to unanticipated cross-border transfers. Money laundering can also have a dampening effect on foreign direct investment if a country's commercial and financial sectors are perceived to be under the control and influence of organized crime (Ghani, 2005).

There is increasing evidence that "human trafficking and smuggling rely on other forms of crimes, such as corruption and document forgery, and support the exploitation of women and children in the sex industry. This in itself can be dangerous to the economic viability and societal stability of the region" (Wesly, 2008). Human trafficking and human smuggling raises concerns regarding social justice and human decency, especially when women and children are being forced into prostitution. However, according to Wesley, they represent relatively low threats to the economic, political and societal development of the region. In fact, the export of labour may represent a way of reducing unemployment and can even bring economic benefits to a country in the form of remittances.

Actions against Transnational Crime

The types of transnational crime described in this paper have been the subject of national, regional and international efforts towards prevention and enforcement.

In order to combat drug trafficking, Singapore, for example, works in close partnership with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority and as a result, has seized large amounts of illicit drugs being trafficked into the country. Brunei Darussalam, while also working closely to stem the flow of drugs that are smuggled into the country, tries to lessen the demand for drugs by conducting outreach and awareness programs among the younger generation, who are more susceptible to drug abuse. In 2003, Thailand launched a nation-wide, comprehensive and intensive campaign against drugs through three intertwined pillars of suppression of drug trade, treatment and rehabilitation and prevention of new drug addiction. The campaign has been successful in drastically disrupting drug networks in the country. It should also be noted that the penalties for drug trafficking in Southeast Asia are among the toughest in the world. Brunei Darussalam, Singapore and Malaysia, for example, still impose the death penalty for serious drug-related offences.

The rise of money laundering from a domestic issue to a global one, precipitated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, have lead a series of initiatives among nations, both individually and as a group. Nearly all the ASEAN member states have enacted legislation to limit the occurrence of money laundering. Brunei Darussalam, for example, has enacted the Money Laundering Order 2000 and the Criminal Conduct (Recovery of Proceeds) Order 2000, implemented according to international standards. Some countries have taken a more proactive approach. Singapore has recently revamped their money laundering legislation to reflect the new risks of money laundering through its casinos. In 2008, two years before their first casinos opened, the Singapore government established the Casino Regulatory Authority (CRA), mandated with comprehensive anti-money laundering/counter-terrorist financing (AML/CTF) prescribed in the Casino Control (Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing) Regulations under the Casino Control Act. These acts are benchmarked against international standards and continually updated to reflect current trends and practices in money laundering.

Furthermore, all ASEAN member states are members of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body tasked with developing and promoting policies to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. The FATF issued its Forty Recommendations, which sets out the framework from AML/CTF efforts. On top of that, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are also members of the Asia Pacific Group of Money Laundering (APG). The APG's principal roles are the implementation of the AML/CFT global standards and the regional assessment of compliance, through training and technical assistance (Shannon, 2005).

On a regional level, ASEAN has also addressed the issue of transnational crime. The 1997 ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime calls for joint efforts to combat transnational crime, including drug trafficking, human trafficking and smuggling as well as money laundering, in the region. In 1999, member states developed the ASEAN Plan of Action to Combat Transnational Crime in order to coordinate efforts to prevent, control and neutralize transnational crime through regional cooperation. Part of the plan is the establishment of an ASEAN Centre on Transnational Crime (ACTC).

With regards to human trafficking and smuggling, there have been a number of policy responses at national level to deal with this crime. Thailand, perhaps the country with the longest history of dealing with human trafficking and smuggling, has been very active in developing an appropriate response to the problem. Thailand has developed and implemented a number of policies and plans, such as the National Policy and Plan of Action for the Prevention and Eradication of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act (1996), the Measures in Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking of Women and Children Act (1997) as well as various public awareness programs.

Singapore and Malaysia, on the other hand, are major receiving countries of human trafficking and smuggling, particularly for the purposes of labour. Their approach to trafficking is therefore very different to that of Thailand, or other countries in the Mekong region. The issue of trafficking in Singapore is mainly approached as an illegal migration problem. The Singapore Immigration and Registration Department and the Ministry of Manpower impose strict terms and conditions on who may remain in the country to work.

Similarly, Malaysia approaches the issue of trafficking largely in the context of illegal migration. From 1991 to 1996, the government launched a policy of registering all illegal migrant workers in Malaysia and deporting those who remained illegal. Stricter immigration policies were introduced after the economic crisis in 1997, including the freezing of the recruitment of foreign workers, and arrest, detainment and deportation of foreign workers (Derks, 2000). The freeze has since been lifted, but the situation for foreign workers remains insecure.


This essay has examined the various types of transnational organised crimes that primarily affect the Southeast Asian region. Drug trafficking has the highest potential for economic and societal instability, as it funds insurgent groups in already troubled parts of the region. The high profits and never-ending demand for drugs mean that drug trafficking has the potential to spread and grow even more, even to the point of overwhelming legitimate economic and social activity. Money laundering is a threat due to its links with terrorist funding, and the fact that it facilitates other forms of criminality. Human trafficking and smuggling often supply the sex industry with kidnapped women and children. However, it is interesting to note that in some situations, these crimes can bring about some benefits. Workers who are trafficked for the purposes of forced labour can bring economic benefits to their home country in the form of foreign remmitances. Similiarly, methods of money laundering can also bring foreign capital into developing countries that desperately need it.

This essay has also outlined various initiatives that individual states have undertaken to address these crimes, as well as regional efforts, either through the ASEAN or inter-governmental bodies. The growth of further international cooperation will no doubt take centre stage over the next few years, as governments work even more closely to combat these forms of transnational crimes. The measure of success will of course be the extent to which Southeast Asian countries, which are all affected by these transnational crimes to different degrees, are able to protect their societies and their region from these threats.